Many sides of truth emerge in two days of hearings
The Klan leader who led a group of white supremacists to Morningside Homes on Nov. 3, 1979 stared evenly at the seven members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the second day of hearings and told them that ‘“maybe God guided the bullets’” that cut short the lives of five communist labor activists.
Virgil Griffin, now the elderly imperial wizard of the Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan based west of Charlotte, seemed to toy with the commissioners in about 30 minutes of defiant and riveting testimony July 16.
He admitted no mistakes and took no responsibility for his role in the deadly assault on members of the Communist Workers Party that brought Greensboro international infamy more than 25 years ago.
‘“Them communists might be doctors and lawyers, but my people was deer hunters,’” he said, as an explanation for why the white supremacists emerged unscathed from the confrontation. ‘“They knew how to kill their food.’”
Griffin contradicted the survivors’ contention that his group and members of the American Nazi Party carried out the killings with the complicity of federal and local law enforcement, and that they acted as a proxy force for a government effort to crush union organizing.
When asked if there was a relationship between the Klan, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, he said if there was he wasn’t aware of it, and even claimed he tried to organize a union himself as an employee of a JP Stevens textile plant. But when Commissioner Mark Sills asked Griffin if he was aware of any support from community leaders, such as business and government figures, for the Klan, the old race warrior invoked the Lynyrd Skynyrd clause.
‘“Do you think I’d tell you?’” he asked. ‘“You said you wanted the truth. Why are you asking me to lie? Maybe you’ve got the truth and maybe you haven’t.’”
At the beginning of his testimony, he expressed the opinion that the 1979 atrocity should be swept from collective memory.
‘“This thing would have been forgotten 25 years ago if it wasn’t for the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the news media,’” he said. ‘“The city should shut this thing down and run the media out and never mention it again.’”
A day earlier, a visiting member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission predicted Griffin’s performance.
‘“I’ll be surprised if the perpetrators come up here to say they are sorry for what they have done,’” he said. ‘“It’s really a gesture of the victims to say we take the high moral ground to say we will forgive as long as you are prepared to accept forgiveness.’”
Despite the appearance that neither the attackers ‘— or for that matter, the victims ‘— seemed ready to budge much in their accounting of the confrontation, the imperial wizard looked out into an auditorium nearly full to its 250-person capacity. He surely took note of the five empty seats adorned with white roses and behind them the two rows of widows and survivors. Conspicuously absent among the audience members, who listened with quiet respect, were city officials and administrators.
One Klan leader ‘— albeit one who kept his men away from Greensboro on Nov. 3, 1979 ‘— did express a change of heart, but stopped short of apologizing to the survivors.
Gorrell Pierce, who lives in Belews Creek in the northeast corner of Forsyth County, was once the grand dragon of the Federated Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a group that faced off against the Communist Workers Party in China Grove four months before the fateful confrontation in Greensboro.
Pierce took credit for ushering his men into a community center and thus averting a fatal clash with the communists. He said he later told his men to stay away from the communists’ ‘“Death to the Klan’” march in Greensboro. Many historical observers believe the humiliation the Klan and Nazis experienced in China Grove combined with the communists’ inflammatory rhetoric towards them made the confrontation in Greensboro all but inevitable.
Throughout his testimony, Pierce expressed a degree of identification with the communists, and said he is not proud of his days with the Klan.
‘“If I’d been born in New York City I probably would have made a good communist, but being born where I was, I made a very good klansman,’” he said.
About the Communist Workers Party members’ labor activism in the textile mills, Pierce said he was sympathetic.
‘“We need more unions now to protect our jobs,’” he said. ‘“That didn’t bother me about the CWP. If you study history, the trade unions in Germany before World War II were all full of communists. I had a lot of respect for the CWP. I still have a lot of respect for them today.’”
He finished by saying he hoped the victims and perpetrators could put the killings behind them.
‘“When I leave here today I hope this is done with,’” he said. ‘“It ain’t gonna get no better until everybody throws their sword down.’”
Yet because 1979 represents a decisive loss for the former Communist Workers Party members, they may be less prepared to move on. It’s worth noting that the South African truth commission that is the model for Greensboro’s efforts represents different things to the adversaries of 1979. South Africa, where the white-dominated apartheid system crumbled in the late 1980s, has been noted as a hopeful example by the former Communist Workers Party members who survived 1979 and mentioned with an almost equal measure of dread by white nationalists monitoring the truth process in Greensboro. While there are similarities between the South African truth process and this first ever truth process in the United States, Finca noted one striking difference.
‘“There was a change of regime in South Africa,’” he said. ‘“Here there is no change. Those who are in charge of the police now are the same ones who were in charge of the police then. The power relations are the same.’”
With survivors of the 1979 killings and fellow leftist organizers active in parallel anti-racist and labor struggles of the day comprising more than half of the speakers through 14 hours of testimony, one outcome of the hearings was the reassertion of the legacy of progressive activism.
Former Communist Worker Party members are moving into positions of influence in academia and their version of history is receiving a fuller hearing.
‘“It is well known to historians that North Carolina’s elite have promoted white supremacy, anti-communism, and right-wing terror throughout history to suppress labor organizing and black freedom,’” said Yonni Chapman, a survivor of the massacre who is now pursuing a doctorate in history at UNC-Chapel Hill. ‘“This knowledge is not widespread because it has been suppressed. It does not conform to the progressive mystique cultivated by North Carolina leaders.’”
At least three other speakers discussed the historical period leading up to the Greensboro Massacre as a kind of aborted third phase of the civil rights movement in which, having won the legal battles of desegregation and having opened public accommodations through tactics such as the lunch counter sit-ins, activists turned their attention to issues of economic justice.
One of those was Si Khan, a Charlotte-based activist who organized textile workers at the JP Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids from 1975 to 1979. It was a campaign that brought him into uneasy contact with the more militant Communist Workers Party activists, who sometimes antagonized the mainline Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers of America union.
‘“In 1974 in Roanoke Rapids, the Amalgated Clothing and Textile Workers of America finally wins a union election in the South,’” Khan said. ‘“There is a sense of great hope and possibility. In the same way that thousands of young people came into the South in the sixties to work with the civil rights movement, thousands of young people came into the South in the seventies to work with unions.’”
If the successful 1974 union election in Roanoke Rapids was the Woodstock of the 1970s economic justice movement in North Carolina, the 1979 killings in Greensboro were perhaps its Altamont.
‘“This reached and shook us all,’” Khan said. ‘“To the extent that there was optimism and hope, that’s the moment when it was undermined. There was a rawness to Greensboro that took us by surprise even if it shouldn’t have.’”
Khan mentioned the violently-suppressed general strike in textiles that took place in and around Gastonia in 1934 as a reason why many North Carolina workers to this day steer clear of unions.
‘“It was suppressed with a violence and bitterness that is reminiscent of what we’re talking about today,’” he said. ‘“There were 39 known dead. There were people behind barbed wire because the jails were overflowing. There were machine guns set up on rooftops. It’s virtually a military operation against workers.’”
Khan added in his testimony that, unlike in 1934, he saw little evidence that North Carolina police continued to harass labor organizers in the 1970s and later years ‘— a component of the survivors’ claim that the Greensboro Police Department conspired with the Klan and Nazis to assassinate labor leaders who were on the verge of new organizing successes.
‘“I can’t say I saw a lot of instances in my organizing in North Carolina where law enforcement aggressively intervened on the side of management,’” Khan said, adding: ‘“I wasn’t in Greensboro. I was in a series of small places. My experience is very partial.’”
Another speaker, Arkansas State Tech assistant professor of history Jeffrey Woods said a consensus of anticommunism in the United States during the Cold War made it easy for activists like the Communist Workers Party members to be stigmatized and isolated.
In addition to Chapman, the commissioners heard testimony from two other survivors: Signe Waller and Paul Bermanzohn.
Waller’s testimony brought a strong personal dimension to the hearings’ overall theme of loss and demobilization. She spoke of her slain husband, Dr. James Waller, as ‘“a beautiful human being’” who ‘“badly strummed three songs on the guitar, including ‘Frankie and Johnny Were Sweethearts’ and ‘All Africa Rise Up.””
But it was in her account of the lonely aftermath of the killings that her grief showed the most. Fired from a job as a spinner, she said she was told that a local college wouldn’t hire her even though she was eminently qualified, and she was forced to lie about her background to get a job as a waitress and avoid falling into dire poverty.
‘“After the murders, I relinquished ‘— painfully but perhaps prudently ‘— custody of my two children,’” she said. ‘“The guns of November third took not only my beloved husband and my four friends, but my family. I missed my children’s adolescence, though my daughter has since informed me that I am fortunate for this.’”
As a friend, Cory Wechsler, comforted her on the stand while she dabbed her eyes with tissue, Waller recounted how she was only able to reconcile with her daughter, Toni, in 2003 after 15 years of estrangement.
Like Bermanzohn, she asserted a belief long held by the survivors that the killings were orchestrated by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Greensboro Police Department, with Detective Jerry Cooper and police informant and Klan member Edward Dawson acting as coordinators.
‘“It appears to me that a death squad of terrorists was deputized in this city long before September 11, 2001,’” Waller said. ‘“Ultimately Cooper and Dawson were backed up by the citizens of Greensboro. Why did the good people of Greensboro allow this to happen? This is a glorious moment, for it is the moment that we may begin to understand the truth. I am ready. Are you ready?’”
Members of the audience answered her question by giving her a standing ovation.
Later testimony from author Elizabeth Wheaton, however, contradicted the survivors’ claims of official complicity. Wheaton wrote a report about the killings for the Institute of Southern Studies, a social justice-oriented research organization in Durham, that was sympathetic towards the Communist Workers Party. In 1983, after earning the trust of the survivors, she started working on a book about the killings and the subsequent trials called Codename: Greenkil. In the course of her research, her views of the Communist Workers Party shifted significantly.
‘“My writing on November third has been called ‘blaming the victims,’ ‘a betrayal of the left’ and worse,’” she said. ‘“I know this is hard to listen to, and it’s equally hard to say.’”
She quoted text from internal memos and journals published by the communist group that suggested the communists were more interested in building their party than helping workers, that they trampled over other progressive activists’ work, and sought a confrontation with the Klan for purposes of political gain.
Commissioner Cynthia Brown questioned whether Wheaton was trying to place all the blame on the Communist Workers Party.
‘“The bottom line is that five good, loving people died, a neighborhood was terrified,’” Wheaton said. ‘“It could have been stopped. That the police were not there, that the city chose to put the police in a low profile, it’s an almost incomprehensible blunder. But the Klan and Nazis having brought the weapons ‘— that’s where the ultimate blame lies.
‘“Cone Mills, the federal government, official Greensboro,’” she added, ‘“there’s no evidence that they were a factor in bringing these parties together.’”
If the first two days of hearings provided a historical context of the progressive aspirations, the climate of anticommunism and the left-wing sectarianism that led up to the Greensboro massacre, the question of whether federal and local law enforcement were complicit in the killings remains unresolved.
Commissioner Mark Sills said the Greensboro Police Department has had to hire an additional person to review documents before turning them over to the commission, and he is confident they’ll get all the information they’ve requested. Research Director Emily Harwell said the Commission hasn’t requested documents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms because of limited resources.
Putting the controversy to rest once and for all will not be an easy task, said Bongani Finca.
‘“You carry a huge burden,’” he said. ‘“The task that you have started will become more difficult as the days go by. You will require all the spiritual resources that can be muster.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at email@example.com.